Summary and Analysis
The simple, straightforward title of the poem “Mother to Son,” by the African-American poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967), clearly identifies both the speaker of the work and the person to whom her words are addressed. The very first line of the poem is typical of the rest of the work in its use of phrasing that is colloquial—that is, in this case, phrasing that implies one person speaking to another. Yet the phrasing is also colloquial in the sense that it is ordinary, unpretentious, and informal. By beginning with the word “Well,” the mother sounds as if she is responding to a question from her son, while the use of the generic word “son” sounds (ironically) more affectionate than if she had used the son’s proper name. By using the word “son,” the mother also makes their relationship seem universal and archetypal—as if this might be any mother speaking to any son. (The effect would be significantly different, for instance, if the poem had begun “Well, Richard,” or “Well, Langston.”) As presently written, the opening line implies the close, loving relationship between almost any parent and his or her child.
The second line continues the emphasis on colloquial phrasing. The word “ain’t,” for instance, is clearly informal and unpretentious, implying either that the speaker has not been educated in a conventional way or that she is unconcerned with the niceties of formal education. The fact that the second line is almost twice as long as the first (nine syllables versus five) suggests that the poem will not have a rigid, prepackaged formal structure, and indeed a glance at the shape of the poem as it moves down the page suggests that it follows no preplanned, predictable scheme, either in meter or in rhyme. Part of Hughes’s talent as a poet involves his ability to mimic the rhythms and diction of actual speech, and clearly that talent is on display in this particular poem.
The phrase “crystal stair” is intriguing. It can be found in a variety of texts from the nineteenth century, some religious and some secular, and it is often used to suggest the glorious connection or procession from earth to heaven. A “crystal” stair implies a stairway that is special, unusual, beautiful, finely wrought, and symbolic of wealth. However, the speaker’s stair, or movement through life, has been associated with few of these traits. Instead, it has been actually or potentially painful, brimming with “tacks,” “splinters,” and “boards torn up” (3-5)—details suggesting that the speaker’s social position also places her at or near the bottom of the economic ladder. The places she has inhabited, or where she has worked, have not been beautiful or associated with wealth or comfort (“no carpet on the floor” ). Instead, they have been plain and “Bare,” an adjective that receives emphatic stress by being the only word in line 7. Nowhere else in this poem does Hughes give such singular emphasis to just one word. The word “Bare” implies something naked, unadorned, unfurnished, barren, or even vulnerable. It is entirely appropriate that this is the word that finds itself all alone in a single line.
No sooner does the poem dwindle down to a single word, however, than it begins to expand in line 8. If the poem had ended with line 7, its tone might have seemed self-pitying and maudlin. Instead, the tone from lines 8-13 becomes one of active resolution, with a strong metrical stress on verbs. Whereas the first seven lines had used mostly drab, abstract verbs (“tell,” “been,” and “had”), with only one vivid but violent verb-phrase (“torn up”), lines 8-13 use strong, assertive verbs: “a-climbin’,” “reachin’,” “turnin’,” and “goin’.” The key syllables in these verbs are emphasized by the poem’s meter. Thus, the second part of the poem is more active than the first part. Lines 1-7 had described a condition and lifestyle; lines 8-13 almost reenact, through...
(The entire section is 1,151 words.)